We spent the night at Nairobi, at a hotel in the centre of the city, located right at its very busy, very crowded and very traffic-jammed heart. Exhausted by the whole-night flight as also by the sensory overload of a new country, I collapsed onto the hotel bed and as I sunk into its welcoming bosom, I realised for the first time in my life the value, and I mean the real value of being able to sleep horizontally on a real bed, and not at an obtuse angle at some airport-lounge-chrome-plated-vinyl-skinned-unforgiving-metal-chair that harboured pretensions of affording five-star comfort....!
Our hotel room was cool, the bed soft and the sheets clean and though all night traffic honked and buzzed on the streets below us and the discotheque next door blared Swahili and old English rock and roll, Other Half and I slumbered undisturbed, like two Kumbhkarans imported from India....
The next morning, refreshed and renewed, we were on time at the dining hall for our first Kenyan breakfast. But sadly there was nothing Kenyan about it, it being a typical Continental menu. But I must make a mention of three things that caught the interest of my blogger brain at this breakfast: one, the juice they served was actually fresh mango juice, a lovely dusky pink and very yummy; two, the coffee, which was local Kenyan, strong and aromatic; and three, the chef taking our egg order, a flamboyant and gallant Kenyan gentleman (i.e. as flamboyant and as gallant as one can manage to be while cooking eggs!) I say flamboyant because he wore a flamboyantly tall chef’s hat and gallant because he handed over my fried eggs with an elaborate flourish and a loud announcement of “Ladies...., first!” Never having been served eggs or for that matter anything else so royally in my entire life, I was completely floored and spent the remaining breakfast eating my double fried in a happy haze!!!!
We then moved onto the next phase of our safari, i.e. meeting up with our safari operator and our safari mates. Our tour firm, called Big Time Safaris, comprised of a number of extremely affable Kenyans and on being introduced to its owner , I reasoned that it was probably named so in honour of the ‘bigness’ of this gentlemen...! Of ample proportions, a generous middle and impeccably dressed in a suit and tie and shining brogues, he was given to much guffawing and bear hugging and back slapping; in all a jovial Kenyan Santa Klaus minus the beard and the red fur coat....He grasped Other Half in a bear hug on introduction as if they were long lost brothers and I almost heard Other Half’s ribs crackling with the pressure of that hug. The whole atmosphere there was very genial and very loud with much hugging, laughing and backslapping and I got the feeling that the Kenyans are an affable lot.
We were also introduced to our chauffeur cum tour guide, the mighty Jackson. Tall, lean with bad teeth and a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, he was a Kenyan Popeye with an attitude to match. I’ll tell you why I added that attitude bit. Jackson was an etiquette nitpicker. On being introduced to us, while Other Half had shaken his hands genially, I had demurred a split second (truly, my bad) and quick to catch on, Jackson had insisted, “Shake my hand, Mamma!!!” Sheepishly I had had to extend my hand which he had then enveloped in a vigorous Kenyan handshake....! It was embarrassing to say the least, to be nit-picked thus. But I am happy to say I had my revenge later. At breakfast the next day, Jackson stood next to us at the buffet table and eager not to repeat my bad behaviour from the day before, I took the trouble (yes, it is trouble for introverts like me) to wish him good morning, asking whether he had had a good night. Jackson smiled and replied in the affirmative. However, it seems that this morning rendezvous had slipped from his mind and later as we were boarding the vehicle, he couldn’t help ticking me off again: “You should say good morning to me, Mamma and ask how my night had been!” But I was ready. Looking at him straight in the eye (line of vision at an acute angle he being six foot plus and me being five foot nothing!) and bursting with righteous indignation, I shot back the counter accusation, “You do not remember meeting me at breakfast !!!!” Ah, it was sheer pleasure to see the spark die out from his eyes as remembrance dawned on him. Defeated, he turned away without a word, shoulders hunched. Revenge, aren’t thou sweeter than the roshogolla...?
But Africa was beckoning and I had to perforce tear my mind away from the gloating and drink in the beauty of the African savannah unfolding around us. It was a beautiful winter morning with crisp air and blue skies and we rode northwards on the Great North Road towards the Great Rift Valley view point. Our safari mates had by now joined us. We were a very international kind of group, one the mighty Jackson officially christened ‘Jacksons Team’. Beside us desis, there was only one other couple , newly-weds from Turkey, comprising of the petite and incredibly pretty Bunch of Flowers (BoF) and her husband the completely bare- headed and completely quiet Mr Strong and Silent. There were also the three tall and lanky Danes from Copenhagen, budding doctors practising presently at Zanzibar. These young men with otherwise very good manners spent the entire trip chattering non-stop in their native tongue. Understandably I could not understand a word; and this would otherwise not have bothered me much, except that the only word from their conversation that I recognised and winced each time it hit my eardrums was the ‘F’ word. This word so generously sprinkled their conversation that I am completely convinced that ‘F’ word is originally Danish! The last member and the only lone ranger was an affable young man from Finland with such a propensity to either forget something or drop something or trip over something that I’ll name him the ‘Awkward Finn’ (AF).
The Great North Road was wide and smooth with the early African savannah on either side, consisting of low faded-green grasslands dotted with the flat topped acacia. Traffic was sparse and we rode comfortably, at times almost nodding off with the smoothness of the ride. Jackson informed us that that we would at first be climbing uphill towards the Great Rift Valley viewpoint and then be descending down into the valley itself. Sure enough, we were soon ascending over a typical Ghat like landscape, with low stony hills rising on our left and the great African Rift Valley stretching far away beyond the escarpment to our right. A curious tree grew in abundance on the hill slopes, a cactus like thing with a single woody stem and multiple branching green cactus like shoots. I enquired of Jackson (now a good friend) about it and he said it was an Euphorbia. Well the only Euphorbia that I knew of was that extremely thorny household shrub with pretty red flowers from back home, a favourite of most Indian home gardeners being a hardy little plant requiring very little care. And knowing that Jackson like all good guides had this propensity to fib when without an answer, I stored the info at the back of my brain to be cross checked later. But Jackson had not been fibbing because later when I consulted my friend Wiki, I found out that both these plants were of the common genus Euphorbia, the Indian flowering shrub being called E. milii ( yes, with a double ii) while the African cactus was E. ingens, also very aptly called the candlebra tree and it possessed a very irritant poisonous sap.
There were these little tourist stops on the left of the road at the edge of the slope and we stopped at one of them. Jackson made a formal announcement in typical Jackson style that this was to be photography stop, a shopping stop, a use-the-washroom stop and of course a smoking stop. He also helpfully informed us that the curios there were the best in Kenya and a steal. Other Half being a compulsive shopper made a beeline for the little thatched curio shop while I rushed to the washroom. These were surprisingly spotless and odour free and made me wince in shame when I thought about the state of public restrooms in India. Anyway, by the time I emerged from my adoration of the washrooms of Kenya, Other Half had made a detailed survey of the goods on display and he informed me that though of excellent quality, they were exorbitant. So after a quick admiration of the multiple wooden tribal heads, skilfully carved animals made from horn, adorable little soapstone rhinos and elephants, we emerged into the sunshine to admire the beautiful Rift Valley that lay dozing in a blue haze in the early morning sun. A helpful Kenyan gentlemen who had accosted us at this point, pointed out Masai villages and schools in the distance. He also offered to click a few snaps of ours and when he continued to linger on without much purpose, I got this feeling that maybe he was looking for a tip or something. I get a little uncomfortable in such situations and so when a little local boy came selling ripe red plums and the Kenyan gentleman remarked , “Buy plum, help local economy” Other Half did so. The Kenyan gentleman, probably happy at having successfully boosted his country’s economy, now moved away, to our great relief and we both went and sat on the roadside parapet to admire the view in peace.
A young Kenyan boy was also sitting on the parapet, next to me. He was probably about twelve or thirteen, plump with an oval head and looked for all the world like an African Laughing Buddha. We got talking and he told me his name was Anthony. He was a Kikuyu ( a major tribe of Kenya) and lived high up on the hill. He then asked me where I was from and when I answered 'India' , he nodded in comprehension . ‘Where in India?' he then asked me. Not very sure that he would be familiar with my small home town, I said ‘Calcutta.You know 'Calcutta'? Anthony was nonplussed: No did not know Calcutta. I offered helpfully, ‘You know, Calcutta... Bengal.... Rabindranath Tagore...?’ Anthony was by now well and truly lost. ‘Tagore’? No he did not know ‘Tagore’, but he did know ‘Salman Khan’!
There was really was not much I could say after this answer. Other Half was now chortling in amusement beside me. In fact I could hear his thoughts.... ‘Madam, Tagore’s from a century back, well and truly fossilised’!
I am not dogmatic at all and can adapt without too much fuss to situations. So, if it was to be Salman Khan, then it would be Salman Khan; who was I to fight reality? At least we had an ambassador here in this little corner of Africa; if not the Poet, then why not the Khan? I asked Anthony which films of Salman he had seen and he said he had seen the one where Salman was a cop and his brother had picked up a quarrel with him. “Dabangg’ I announced happily. Although I was a diehard Salman hater, Dabangg was a film, which, for a change I had enjoyed thoroughly, seduced solely by its dialogues and the beautiful music. I asked Anthony if he had seen the sequel ‘Dabangg II’ but he said, ‘No. The CD was still not available in Kenya.’ The wistfulness in his voice made me feel sad. Had I known I would be meeting this little Salman fan , here in the heart of Africa, I would have definitely brought a CD of Dabangg II to present to him. Here I had my IPad full to the brim with Tagore’s songs but I had not one song from Salman’s films, not even an album label. It felt like such an irony.We continued chatting and Anthony told us about his home, his school and his village. Jackson was now beckoning us back to the vehicle and it was time to go. As I said goodbye, Anthony waved at me and said, ‘One day, I will come to India, to Mumbai....” I smiled as I waved back at him. Please do, Anthony, please do. It’s a one fine country, of fine people like Rabindranath Tagore and Salman Khan.